I am abducted to some place where nothing is familiar but the rattle of cutlery. Days of drifting in and out of sleep uncertain of reality, evaporate all my past experience. There is only a vague present that slowly grows into a new familiarity. The volunteer in the floral dress doesn’t bother me again. I look on at the occasional quiet bustle of overworked nurses as if through thick glass. Attention is silent, cursory and efficient. I make no trouble, cause no disturbance and demand nothing. I lie behind an invisible barrier, impenetrable from either side, for an immeasurable time.
I am allowed to spit, and the dose is repeated. ‘It will make your throat feel better,’ assures a strange cheerful voice. Will it? A plump hand pats my head and moves away. Did I manage to be good? Have I heard that voice before from one of the change-daily faces? It spoke to me as if I was real. It is a tiny ration of comfort that steadies me enough to hold the next revolting mouthful and bubble through it until I am allowed to spit.
I wake one day to find that a wonderful tree has appeared in the dim distance at the end of the ward. Nurses hang beautiful coloured things on it that gleam and shine and sparkle. Each day, I watch the tree, waiting for a small movement of air to set the decorations glinting. ‘Christmas’ is coming, I hear. The word has a familiar ring that awakens hopefulness and a tinge of excitement.
Father Christmas arrives and stands smiling and waving beside the beautiful tree, dressed all in red. Out of his bag he draws unimaginably wonderful toys! They’re real! I watch in awe as he hands them to the nurses who bring them round to one cot after another. Even for me there is a present! And a smile!
My breath comes fast and my eyes can hardly take in the sheer beauty of what I see. Lying in a box covered with cellophane is a tiny china tea set, all complete. I am too overwhelmed to even touch the four little cups tucked into cardboard slots at each corner, each with its matching saucer and plate. In the centre of the box lie a real teapot, milk jug and sugar basin with a lid, fitted into shaped holes. Every piece sports an identical posy of minute, delicate pink and blue flowers.
I sit staring, rendered weak by the glow of delight that animates every cell of my body with joy. A rush of love and gratitude flows through me for grace unmerited has been granted to me. It is really for me, the bad girl! I lift the teapot out of its hole and find flowers on the other side too. Even the hole is magical, with a handle and spout of its own like a teapot ghost. I lift a cup to my lips, blissfully sipping air.
When it is time for us all to sleep off our excitement, there is joy in nestling each cup and saucer in its own place, reuniting the teapot with its ghost-shape and making the set look like a new present again. I am relieved to watch my treasure taken to be stowed out of sight where it will not get broken and soon drift into a deep sleep.
I wake to a new contentment and scramble to my feet to see what is happening. The child in the next cot sits engrossed in some activity of her own. She has plump, rosy cheeks and golden brown hair that falls into curls of its own accord without any bobby pins or rags or long hours of standing while it is brushed around fingers. I watch her longingly. The girl looks up, smiles and extends a fist through the bars. I reach towards her but it is too far. She stands up to lean over the side of the cot. She is taller and can reach further. She speaks! “Do you want a stamp?”
Nodding, I stretch a little further until our hands touch. The girl withdraws her fist, takes a small square of paper from it and passes it slowly and thoroughly over her tongue. She presses it firmly on the back of my hand. “Do you want another one?” she says. I nod, wordless but eager. I receive another stamp and another. They cling to the back of my hand, thick, wet and spongy. It is not newspaper that you can tear and crumple into balls that unroll themselves again with delicious papery sounds while you squeal with glee, romping and laughing…
It is story book paper. I look down into the girl’s cot and discover the mutilated book half hidden by the messy heap of blankets just as a passing nurse pounces. I am scolded as the slobber is washed from my hand, laid down and covered up. I hide my face under the blankets and ache with anguish. I have taken part in dreadful wickedness.
Home to mother, father, sister, books, dolls.
Outside the entrance stands our real, square, familiar car. Its side curtains are all in place and I can see clearly through real windows made of stuff that isn’t real glass, in frames of dark, wrinkled leather. The handsome maroon-red paintwork gleams beneath its spattering of glistening drops. On the front seat Auntie Gladdie’s borrowed rug comforts me, greeting me with the promise of wrapping me warm and snug-as-a-bug.
This is my motor ride at last. Perched stiffly on mother’s knee I clutch a handful of woolly fringe as I watch the wonderful world flash past. The sky is just the crayon blue I remember. Trees in my real world do not hold presents but they have bendy leaves and wave their branches properly. I try to breathe in the scent of their dampness but can only smell stinking hair. “She doesn’t know me,” she quavers to him tragically. I wonder scornfully, how my mother can be so stupid.
She talks. I sit in silence, relearning the world and its words. She asks questions about the hospital. I do not want to hear. Why does she keep reminding me, now that I have escaped? She questions further. I grow rigid. She makes a small noise of distress.
Perhaps something is required of me. Perhaps speech? Perhaps if I speak, this woman who feels so disconcerting will somehow drive away the horrors – the alien nurse, the poisonous gargling, the filthy Phenyl. Perhaps then she will be sorry for me and cuddle me.
My mouth remembers how to form the words in my head, dragging them slowly from a pit of remembered terror. “I had to wobble for a nurse with a thing on her lip like Grandpa.” She bursts out laughing. Soon everybody who knows us will be laughing at me too as she repeats my cute saying over and over. There is no comfort in this woman.
I look around the room. Dust motes still dance in the sunbeams. They fall on the glowing golden silky oak table and the soft sage green of the carpet square with its one huge spray of pale pink roses. Behind me the wind rustles the leaves of the bamboo thicket that shades the single west window. My eyes rove past the tall glass doors and writing desk of the dark bookcase at the head of my cot, to the scrolled marble mantelpiece surrounding the small black grate.
Washing day. I stand watching my mother lunge at bubbling, steaming clothes with the fibrous end of the softened copper stick and I pester her to know the whereabouts of Teddy. My unwashable, straw-stuffed child has his orange-yellow fur kissed thin and grimy. I can’t find him. I want him. I miss him. He needs cuddling. He needs loving. I want him now. I want her to leave her work and find him. Now. I whine until she can fob me off no longer. She turns on me angrily. ‘I threw the filthy thing under the copper.’ I bend, stunned, to look into the fire and jerk back from its heat. There is no trace of Teddy. My beloved is dead and gone, consigned heartlessly to the flames. Deliberately thrown to the dangerous fire I had been so often warned off. Imagination conjures his writhing death agonies. I flee screaming from my murderous mother, hysterical with grief, rage and terror. If my child has been done away with, will hers be next? I am well and truly slapped for my unforgivable tantrum, repeatedly and hard.
“There’s Pearlie,” she says later, encouragingly. The opalescent kewpie doll on the white marble mantelpiece leaps magically back into existence, smiling at me impishly. My mother has put her there to wait for me beside the white lion, family photographs and the red devil. Red cats still sit beside a tall dark one. A great black vase holds branches of the fluffy pussy willow that I love to touch. I know them all.
“Pearlie!” Sliding off her knee I trot across the room and reach up, yearning. I am lifted and perched back on the knee clutching my doll. I kiss Pearlie’s never-failing smile, her never-scolding mouth, warm the celluloid face against a cold cheek. I watch her iridescent colours change and move as I rock her. I touch the gleaming moulded arms and legs that cannot flail or kick, or smack or hold people down.
She carries both things to the cot and lays us down. My Pearlie sleeps with me, nestled in the soft hollow of my very own bed with cosy blankets cuddling our necks. We curl up in my corner, at one with the things around us, surrounded by the protection of dark patterned wallpaper and warm dark cedar woodwork. There is nothing white anywhere in the room. I breathe painlessly, face to the wall. My cot is a safe place.
The green doors actually exist. More than half a century later the sight of them set me shaking. My head began to feel cold and damp as I walked through them again. My footsteps along the corridor brought the old familiar echoes. I gulped the taste of anxiety, guilt, unworthiness, rejection.
My infectious friend with her foreign disease lay cut off from the outside world in a long ward built for fever patients in 1904 when “the only treatment available was to isolate the patient from others to prevent the spread of disease and all the diseases were accompanied by fever.”(Western District Health Service.)
I recognised the ward immediately. I discovered a dim screened alcove at the far end – so that’s why the Christmas tree was in the dark. As my hand rested on her sheet, I jerked it away from the cold hospital feel and knew for the first time why I can’t stand linen sheets.
I returned home shaking. Nothing prepared me for facing a nightmare become reality, fantasy become fact. Memories of emotion and sensation came surging back to amplify events never forgotten. I had scoffed at my own unlikely snatches of memory. Now wordless images flooded back, agonizingly real, filling forgotten spaces with the feel, the sounds, the emotions. Few words rang clear. The feelings were so intense but only now do I have the words to describe them and so begin to clothe my infant desolation with understanding.
I often get asked why food intolerances are so common now. Whether it’s coeliac disease, gluten intolerance, IBS, fructose malabsorption, nut and egg allergies, salicylates, the list is endless and appears to be growing as Read more…